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Prophet’s Birthday, Early Islam & the Five Pillars

October 2009-09-09

HeadingIslamic Obligatory Practices

The religious obligations of Muslims are numerous and religious law controls virtually every aspect of believer’s life including what they should eat, how to dress and with whom they should associate. Ablutions are the primary canonical duties of Muslims and a very important part of prayer rituals. They are as important as moral values and good deeds and must be observed at all times. For example, if water cannot be obtained to wash hands and face before prayers, sand may be used as an abrasive. But without ablutions prayers are not valid. Prayers are extremely important and obligatory. They are fixed and consist of certain prayers and Quranic verses that are to be repeated in equally fixed and regularly alternating bodily postures. All prayers are performed facing the direction of Mecca. A small clay tablet mainly from Karbala is placed on a small rectangular piece of prayer cloth called janamaz. Prayer beads from holy cities like Karbala or Mecca are also placed on the small cloth and may be used during prayers.

The totality of the prayers and the postures is called a rakat, which must be repeated at least twice for each prayer. Different sects might practice minor variations of the same routine. The Shi’ite Iranians pray three times a day instead of five times. The first one is before dawn and they have combined the noon and afternoon prayers as one and the evening and the late night prayers as another. All Muslims are required to stop work at prayer times and perform the ritual. This in many places is not compatible with modern life. However, it is possible to postpone prayers until later and most people do this if this is their only option.

Friday prayers are particularly important. Being a holiday in all Muslim countries, noon prayers are held in public, mainly mosques. They start with a pulpit address by the leader of prayer called khutbah, followed by prayers and a sermon. The prayers are about professing one’s faith, admitting total subjugation to God’s will and an intercession for Muhammad and his house. The Shi’ites include Ali in their prayers, while Sunni Muslims only mention the Prophet Muhammad.

The next chief religious duty is fasting and will be discussed in more detail. Fasting includes the renunciation of food and drink and other enjoyments such as sexual intercourse from dawn to dusk. Paying alms to the poor is very essential and is called zakat. Shi’ites have another religious tax khoms meaning fifth. This tax is paid directly to the religious authorities for the benefit of the community. Promoting the prescribed (amr e beh marouf) and prohibiting the forbidden (nah ye az monker) are also very important prescriptions. For example any Muslim witnessing another fellow Muslim drinking alcohol has the duty to persuade him not to do so.

These two principles are and were used extensively throughout the centuries to publicly involve everyone to make sure all Islamic principles are followed and observed by all.

Pilgrimage to Mecca and Jihad or holy wars are amongst other principal duties of Muslims. In his earlier days, the Prophet had dedicated himself to the task of converting the Arabs to Islam. Peaceful efforts proved ineffective and after settling down in Medina, it was difficult to persuade many, including fellow converts from Mecca, to attack the old city with all friends and relatives still back in the town. By preaching of war as a sacred and obligatory duty, the Prophet gradually managed to encourage his followers to attack Mecca.

More verses were revealed and the Quran made it quite clear that infidelity to Allah is very serious. In order to bring idolatry to an end, even sacred truces can be broken and blood of the kinsmen can be shed if necessary. The idea of jihad and fighting infidels has been used extensively throughout Islamic history and has become a popular notion with extremists in the last few decades. In response, more moderate Muslims have come up with new interpretations about jihad and believe that jihad represents internal struggles of individuals and oppose violence instigated by jihad. Most Iranian Muslims still follow many of these practices and some notions such as daily prayers, alms to the poor and fasting and pilgrimage are very popular with most Muslims.



  • Cambridge History of Islam
  • Cambridge History of Iran
  • Hoyland, Robert G. Arabia and the Arabs From The Bronze Age To The Coming of Islam. Routledge, London & New York 2001.
  • Wilfred Madeluna  The Succession to Muhammad : A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • The Martyrs Of Karbala: Shi'i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran by Kamran Scot Aghaie

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